A/N: Well, this is it. We're going to end this thing on a somewhat seafaring note, with a tribute to two of my favorite oceangoing action flicks. (And if you thought that Titanic was one of them, you'd be wrong... but you'd be very, very close. Heh.) Thanks kindly for reading. Hope it's been worth your while!
Rosalind Laemmle had arrived. When Susan and Fischer returned from the museum, she was in the entranceway of the house, handing a worn leather jacket and a scarlet scarf off to Nick, their erstwhile doorman. She was in her mid to late twenties, tall and lean in worn sand-colored cargo pants, a midnight-blue commando sweater, gray light tactical boots; and she was of Jamaican extraction, or so Chris had told them. Black hair worn short, straight, slightly wild; sharp, deeply brown eyes wideset in an admittedly beautiful face; and skin the color of—
Cappuccino, Fischer decided, looking at her.
He must have thought the word a little too loudly, or have been staring a little too obtusely; she abandoned the smile with which she was handing Nick her coat, turned to him, and asked: "Do you have a problem with blacks, Mr. Fischer?"
"No." That quickly, she'd caught him gawking, and they both knew it. As his cheeks went hot, he tried not to sputter. "I— umm— Of course I don't."
"Good. Some of you rich bastards are too classless to admit it. How about you, Miss Gaumont?"
"The only problem I have is with someone eying my claim," Susan replied, dryly.
Laemmle glanced at Fischer slyly, a little wolfishly. "He's the right kind of eyeful, you must admit." She offered Susan her hand. "Roz Laemmle. Glad to know you."
Susan smiled, relaxing, as she shook Laemmle's hand. "Susan Gaumont."
"Hey, Roz." Chris, followed by Eames, who'd pulled on a black t-shirt, was coming up from the basement.
"Chris." Laemmle ignored the hand he extended, caught him in a hug. "Sorry I'm so bloody late." She was a bit chillier with Eames. "The pet shop was sold out of snakes?"
"Don't worry, Rosalind. They've been minding their wallets, and they've been careful to lock up the silverware after every meal." Eames leaned smoothly in to kiss her cheek; just as smoothly, Laemmle leaned away. "You are looking scrumptious."
"If you want to keep those teeth, you'll shut up now." She looked from him to Chris and the others. "So why am I here? What's your plan?"
"In a word," Susan replied, "disruption."
Again, though, it came down to waiting.
While AGRESIV sat, fully charged but unlit and unbeeping, in the workroom, they cleaned. They worked out. They strayed in ones or twos from the house, to run, swim, or shop for necessaries, but never very far, and never for very long. They cooked and ate communal dinners (which Fischer enjoyed almost more than he cared to admit, the simple humanity of it, the basic, unstressed cooperation); they even had movie nights by draw, the winner to pick the film— which nearly came to a halt on the first evening, when Eames countered Laemmle's fondness for Fassbinder by professing his secret love for Ingmar Bergman.
Through what Nick would describe only as "the channels," they learned that Selkirk's people were discreetly following up on his attack, that they'd put feelers out for the directions in which the information stolen from his head might have leaked, accompanied by the descriptions of his assailants that Nick, anonymously, via Fischer, had provided. "I know you know Mr. Selkirk as a good and gentle man," Susan said to Fischer, quietly, "but I would hate to be in their shoes if and when he catches up to them."
In the meantime, Fischer, armed with with telecom tech from Nick, checked in with Therese and with Peter Browning, whose initial view of Fischer's situation— in brief, that Robert, his godson and nephew, distraught, disoriented, on the brink of a mental breakdown, had fallen in with a gang of drug-addicted criminals— was replaced, unshakably (and very likely with Therese's help), by the impression that Robert, the lucky S.O.B., was keeping company with at least two beautiful and exotic young women in a trendy private B&B.
Three days in to their AGRESIV vigil, while yet another meteorological mess, a wind-driven slurry of rain and snow, bombarded the house, the six of them sat in the basement, talking over a late dinner of crusty bread, Romaine salad, and lamb stew.
"Projections, in case you haven't noticed," Eames was saying to Fischer, "don't tend to be very bright. A shame Chris is insisting on heading our physical security: I'm sure he'd be remarkably adept at passing as one."
Susan calmly cleared her throat as Chris reached for a knife slightly too sharp for buttering bread; she said, as Chris, glowering at Eames, settled back into his chair: "At best, they operate on instinct. Borrowed instinct, rather: the subconscious instincts of their home-mind. Now," she added, breaking off a chunk of bread for herself, "if intelligent projections were a possibility..."
"Or actual sentient mind-guardians," Nick chimed in. "Now, that would be interesting."
Fischer looked across the table at him. "On-call mental security services, you mean."
"Mm hm. The trick would be getting the mind to accept the protectors. Introducing them in such a way that they would seem innate, not intrusive. Finding, in a manner of speaking, an anti-rejection drug. Something that wouldn't trigger the mind's white blood cells."
"Something that would make the protectors seem like projections," said Laemmle.
"Then again," said Chris, "people being what they are, they'd find a way to fuck it up. Imagine this: dream-techs being kidnapped and co-opted into providing security services. Being kept under practically forever by—"
He stopped, fixed his eyes on his plate.
"—people rich enough to make other people disappear—?" Fischer suggested, bleakly.
He admired Chris for how straightforward the man could be; sometimes he found his honesty chilling. As now. Chris looked across at him and replied, bluntly: "Yes."
"Back to the idea of mind-guardians," said Susan. "Acceptance comes later. For now, more or less, we're going for shock tactics."
"'It's the police. Open up!'?" Eames offered.
"Something like that, yes. We identify the extractors, we alert the mark about the attack, kick him free if the chance arises—"
She stopped, cocking her head toward the stairs. The rest of them went quiet, listening as she did.
Upstairs in the workroom, AGRESIV had started to beep.
"Remember," said Susan, as they ran through the pre-sleep checklist, as Nick mustered the Somnacin, "we won't be inside by anyone's invitation. Any attempt to disrupt the scenario will be taken as an act of aggression, both by the dreamer's mind and by the rival team."
"In other words," said Eames, pushing up the right sleeve of the burgundy sweater he wore, "everyone will be shooting at us, if we're found out."
"When we're found out," Susan corrected him. "It's inevitable."
Nick watched the vials of Somnacin empty into AGRESIV's central reservoir. "And any 'nonlocalized' ruckus will alert the original team— the bad guys— that something is wrong, even if it's not immediately apparent that a second team is on the case."
Fischer asked: "Won't it be dangerous for the mark?"
Susan looked at him. "How so?"
"Real-world retaliation," Chris said. He caught Fischer's eye. "That's what you're thinking, right? The bad guys realize they've been fucked, they wake up, they take it out on the mark. A beating, maybe even kidnapping or murder."
"I thought," says Eames, "that most of us were in this business because we were too genteel or too humane to get our real hands really dirty."
"You can say 'cowardly,' Eames," Laemmle told him. "We'll forgive you."
Nevertheless, she was now hesitating. And, like the others, she was looking to Susan.
"No." Susan frowned pensively as she spoke. "They'll abandon the mark and the job. They've already been paid; they'll take their money and run."
"Next thing," said Chris. "You want to indulge me, Sue?" He looked worried. "I think we should set up in the attic for this one."
"Any particular reason?" Eames asked.
"No. Just a feeling."
Susan patted his shoulder. "Sure, Chris. No problem."
They went all the way to the top of the house and set up. The building, if cramped to its external sides, was free-standing: there were no crossover walls, present or former, between it and its neighbors. They entered the attic via a door and a ladder folding down from the ceiling at the far end of the second-floor corridor, where Chris had his room; at approximately waist level, set into the roof facing Montague, were two narrow, dust-encrusted dormer windows that they might use as exits in case of emergency. As Nick and Laemmle spread cushioning blankets on the rough wood floor, Fischer shuddered, imagining fire, smoke creeping in choking tendrils around the edges of the door near his feet. No, they wouldn't be trapped, he told himself, as he forced himself to relax, to unbunch his shoulder muscles, to draw and release deep, full breaths.
As the imagined weight of the roof pressed down on his head.
Susan's, again, was their entry-dream. Under AGRESIV's spell, she, Fischer, and Eames passed through the door of Nick's waiting-room bridging scenario: they emerged into fresh salt air near the clear dark water of yet another swimming pool. Fischer glanced behind them at the white changing-building from which they'd just apparently come.
Nick, who'd been waiting on the door's other side, caught him looking. "Feel free to make with the cabana-boy jokes," he said.
They were on the promenade deck of an ocean liner at sunset, and they were alone near the pool. It was too chilly to swim, thought Fischer, which would mean, for purposes of the dreamscape, casino time, dance time, or party time for the passengers aboard. Also, people tended to want to bed down when night fell. An automatic diurnal response. Something the other team's architect would likely be thinking.
A westerly breeze blew in from across the water. A roll of clouds edged the horizon, still underlit by the sun, and the air held the promise or threat of rain. Fischer looked to the others. Perhaps it was a trick of the fading light, but—
"You're looking green, Mr. Eames," he said.
"I had a bad feeling going under." Eames swallowed, looked away from the ocean. "It would have to be a bloody boat."
Fischer felt a devilish sense of gratification. "Not only are we dreaming, we're on a ship the size of Tasmania."
"It's not the motion— it's the way the waves—" Eames looked desperately to Nick and Susan. "If it's no fucking trouble, can we please go inside?"
There was a saloon door, its top half frosted glass, its bottom half polished wood, in the superstructure to their right. "My advice? Keep it down," whispered Fischer, as he followed Eames, and the others, into the ship.
"Shut up," Eames gritted in reply.
They were in evening wear when they stepped inside, into a galleria of tiny shops overlooking the ship's grand salon two decks below. Tuxes, black for Fischer and Nick, white for Eames. And, for Susan—
"The simple black dress that solves all of life's little problems," said Eames appreciatively, a little too immediately regaining his composure for Fischer's taste.
Said dress was sleeveless, abbreviated tastefully both above and below, wrapping without constricting Susan's lean curves. She wore matching black shoes, stylish but sensible; she, like the rest of them, was wearing a discreet communications earpiece. Fischer stopped himself from asking how, in a dream, cut loose from the physical laws of the real world, let alone from the reach of communications satellites and multi-G networks, such devices were supposed to work. Better not to jinx it, he thought.
Again, as in their first dream using AGRESIV, he and Eames were to act as lookouts and to run interference. Susan and Nick were to stay invisible to the PASIV dreamer's projections and to the enemy team for as long as possible, and then disrupt said team's attack, alerting the mark in the process. The immediate problem, more prosaically, was basic orientation.
"If you were going to steal something of great value from someone aboard a ship—" Nick began.
"Purser's office," Susan finished. "Typically on the first deck just off the grand lobby."
"Worth a try."
Eames was listening to the sounds coming from below. Big-band music, plenty of trombone and trumpet, forward and distant; from directly below came chatter, a tinkling of bells, a bicycle-spoke clattering. He strolled over to the gleaming brass railing on the far side of the walkway fronting the shops. "Casino, one deck below," he said, looking down. "Robert and I will trail you in from there."
"Fine," said Susan. "Give us a minute or so head-start."
She and Nick moved away; Fischer caught her hand. "Be careful, Susan."
"You, too." She fingered his lapel, smiled as she leaned up to kiss the corner of his mouth. "That's a lovely tux, Mr. Fischer."
She and Nick made their down to the casino via a curving staircase at the forward end of the shops; just past the casino's midpoint, the stairs continued down to the first deck where, thankfully, it was a simple matter of following signs and polished wall-mounted brass arrows. She and Nick walked side-by-side into the purser's office, their movements synchronized and casually robotic. Behind the front counter, more gleaming wood, more brass, a middle-aged man with a dark and receding hairline, uniformed crisply in white, was typing an entry at a black keyboard and monitor. At his back, the door of the main vault was open. A second man, with a pinched, pensive face and vaguely wild but tamed mink-brown hair, of age similar to the first, also uniformed in white, was inside. With him was a tall woman in her well-preserved early sixties, leonine, golden-haired, classically beautiful, striking in an antique-silver evening dress.
"I do beg your pardon," said the man at the counter, as he finished his typing. Susan looked past him into the vault, where the golden-haired woman was saying something very quietly to the second man as he opened one of the midsize wall safes.
"There." Man the first looked away from his screen, trained pale blue eyes directly on Susan. "Now, what can we do for you, Miss Gaumont?"
And when you don't follow the instincts that tell you how wrong, how very wrong, things feel, you stupid man, you bloody presumptuous fool, thought Eames, this is what happens.
They were on to him, and on to Fischer, too, almost the second they set foot in the casino. The projections.
A middle-aged woman oh-so-wrongly stuffed into red Vera Wang bumped into him when he stepped onto the casino floor; she bumped him, and a second later, the tux-bursting hulk who had to be her husband, a nightmare behemoth seemingly modeled on dreams of rugby-glory lost, who might easily have snapped up a This Sporting Life-era Richard Harris in two bites for breakfast, was taking it out on Fischer not so much verbally as with a snarl and a push.
"Sorry. So sorry," Eames said, catching Fischer by the arm as Fischer, shocked and shoved, stumbled. "Entirely our fault."
He led Fischer away from the offended couple, but already it was too late. He felt the eyes focusing on them as they moved into the casino, toward the bar and, beyond that, the railing marking the overlook to the first deck. He felt the convergence.
"They're on to us," he said to Fischer.
To his credit, Fischer cast no panicked looks over his shoulders. "How?" he asked, quietly.
"I'm not sure." They were nearly to the bar. Eames tried his earpiece. "Susan? Nick—?"
Nothing. Of-course-bloody-nothing. He shook his head; Fischer took the cue, finger-tipping his transmitter, muttering names, and then shaking his head in turn: of-course-bloody-nothing for him, too.
They were at the bar, and the tender, male, twentyish, tall, and prematurely balding, was, with his eyes on Eames and Fischer, reaching for something in front of him, at thigh level and out of sight. Eames took the man smoothly by the back of the neck and smashed his forehead and nose into the bar's glowing underlit granite top, then shoved the fellow's limp body to the side as he and Fischer occupied the space behind the bar. What the man had been reaching for— or what Eames had thought he was reaching for and what was now, therefore, what the man had been reaching for in fact— was a pump-action shotgun clamped to the back of the bar's front wall.
Eames took the shotgun for himself; he took, too, a Glock that just happened, with the merest bit of imagination, to be under the bar as well and handed it to Fischer.
"Will this really be necessary—?" Fischer asked, doubtfully eying the gun in his hand.
A query that might have been apt, were they to be set upon only by fat overdressed toffs. When half a dozen white-uniformed crewmembers burst in at the casino's forward end and opened fire on the bar with assault rifles, the question, thought Eames, answered itself.
"Afraid so," he said, as he and Fischer dropped behind the bar, in a shower of glass and gin and Glenlivet. Then, much to Eames's disappointment, as he angled for a view of their assailants that would not concomitantly involve him having his head blown off, Fischer hunched in beside him, cowering in fear.
Or was he?
As Eames got off a shot, then another, and missed both times, he could hear Fischer muttering. A stream of soft syllables as he focused, frowning, on a middle space ahead of him, as he flinched away from a splattering of vodka and more shards of glass. Methyls and bi-ethyls, oxides, point-thises, point-thats. Eames popped off another handful of shots while Fischer, his eyes closed tight, chanted a litany of entries from the periodic table.
From the other side of the bar, the gunfire became more sporadic. A stray shot struck a burst of crystal from a chandelier above the roulette table to their right.
And then the shooting stopped altogether.
Eames waited through ten seconds of shot-free stillness, then looked cautiously out at the casino floor. The projections, armed and not, had stopped their advance. A number of them were stumbling aimlessly about; several of them had collapsed. As Eames watched, one of the crewmen dropped his rifle, fell to his knees, a dumb grin on his face, and toppled onto his side.
"Holy shit," Fischer breathed. He was beside Eames, looking out, too. "It worked."
"What the hell did you do?"
"I— umm— You showed me— In the first dream, you showed me how to visualize, right? And Chris, too: the different ways of altering the dreamscape, and yourself within the dreamscape— When we shoot, that's basically visualization, isn't it? Picturing the bullets entering the projections—?"
Whether that was how it worked or not, Eames could see that Fischer, wound up and shaking, was in no shape for argument. So he simply nodded.
"This time," Fischer continued, his voice an inexorable soft half-babble, "I thought, Why not do it on a molecular level? I'm a chemical engineer; I simply— simply—"
"Simply what, Robert?" Eames prompted, patiently.
"Converted five percent of the water in their brains to alcohol."
"It's just that I hate guns," Fischer continued, obviously misreading Eames's stunned disbelief as disappointment. "I was too afraid to engage them face-to-face."
"No, no. No." Eames patted his shoulder. "Whatever your motivation, it worked."
Fischer smiled, if still a little uncertainly. "What now?"
"Now I warn Susan and Nick, and you—"
"Mister Fischer, might I have a word?"
A man's voice, roughly five meters away, to their left, from the direction of the stairs. Eames looked. Beside him, Fischer started.
One of the projections was still standing. A tall man, lanky in a peacock-blue tux, a ruff-front salmon shirt, dark-haired, even darker-eyed, ill-shaven but handsome in a jaw-heavy way. He was looking at them, and at Fischer particularly, with a wild grin on his face.
"It's him—" Fischer said. "Christ, I should have known—"
"Who-him?" Eames demanded.
"The shaggy man. Outside the hotel. In the museum: it was him—"
"See you on the flipside, Robert," the man called, his voice a jeering sing-song.
Then he took an automatic from the jacket pocket of that awful tux, shot himself in the right temple, and crumpled to the casino floor.
Fischer stared. "What the hell—"
"If we weren't rumbled before, we are now," Eames said. "I'll find the others; go."
He and Fischer left the shelter of the bar. Fischer went to the railing separating the casino from the drop to the floor of the grand lounge.
"Good luck, Eames," he said, glancing back.
He leapt the railing. Fell.
Fischer opened his eyes, sat up. Looked around, the darkness of the attic held back by the pale light of a single battery-powered camp lantern, his heart pounding.
Susan was beside him, unconscious. Nick and Eames were asleep as well.
But Chris wasn't with them. Nor was Laemmle.
He didn't know what to do. The plan, as always, had been for a guardian to stay with the dreamers at all times. Below, within the dreamscape, as far as he knew, Susan and Nick, possibly warned by Eames, were still doing their job: even if he could be sure he could do so safely, Fischer would be hesitant to wake them.
He pulled the IV needle from his wrist, stood, went to the square door set in the floorboards. He was about to open it when he heard the ruckus downstairs.
And then, before he could touch the handle, the door opened from below.
Eames made his way to the first deck, keeping an eye out for fresh, unintoxicated projections; near a fountain in the atrium, he passed Fischer's body, back-twisted, blood pooled beneath his skull, his eerily blue eyes fixed on the ship's skylight high above. Eames looked away. Even after all this time, all his experience, it was still disconcerting seeing someone dream-dead, especially when that someone was not only paying the bills but seemed a clever and decent enough fellow in the bargain.
As Susan and Nick had done earlier, he followed arrows and signs; as he neared the purser's office, he was following, too, the sounds of a fight.
Up top, the house had come under siege.
And Fischer, he who hated guns, recoiled as he saw, in the hand of the man ascending into the attic—
— the shaggy man, or formerly shaggy man, who had stalked Fischer and Susan and the others both in dreams and in reality—
— the thirty-eight Fischer had had in his coat pocket when he came to the house on Montague Street.
Fischer didn't hesitate. He dropped through the opening of the attic door right onto the man's head.
They fell together in a surprised flailing of arms and legs. The gun skittered one way on the worn hallway carpeting; the man, twisting away from Fischer on the floor, gained his footing and ran another, toward the upper-story stairs. Fischer ran after him. Down the steep and narrow staircase they went, then on down the twisting ground-levels—
"Get him, Fischer—!" Chris, from the workroom, shouting. "Get him! Go!" He was in the process of pummeling a second invader, a burly man clad, like the man Fischer was chasing, all in black. "Roz is after another one."
Eames reached the purser's office. Inside, Susan Gaumont, in her simple black dress, was trading blows, blocks, and body-kicks with a big, middle-aged man in a white crewman's uniform. The door to the main vault was closed. And, off to the side, watching in horror, stood a gently aged, amber-eyed beauty who looked for all the world like Catherine Deneuve.
Having assessed the situation, Eames moved on to a quick assumption. "Ma'am," he said to the woman, "the pugnacious young lady and I are from MG Consultants, Limited." As the woman stared at him, stunned or in shock (but at least not attacking: no, certainly, he'd found the mark, not another damned projection), Eames tried a reassuring smile. "You've been kidnapped into an illegally synthesized dreamscape; we're here to help." Behind him, Susan and the purser continued their brawl. "That said, please do forgive me."
He slugged the woman in the jaw, caught her as she slumped, lowered her to the deck. Straightening, he stepped in behind Susan's opponent.
"Allow me." Eames yanked the man's uniform jacket down off his shoulders, pinning his arms within his sleeves. Susan stepped in, deftly took the man's wallet from his inner jacket pocket, found the key card inside it. She greenlit the lock on the vault door, then swung around, momentum and every bit of her body weight behind the blow, and decked the man with a right hook.
Inside the vault, the rival team's extractor had words for Nick's ears only. He'd caught Nick with a savage flurry of body-blows when Nick, leaving Susan to handle the man at the counter, confronted him in the vault. The mark had stepped clear; likely, she'd fled. Now, with the door of the vault locked shut behind them, the extractor had Nick in a headlock on the floor, and he was hissing in Nick's ear, as Nick, the air being crushed from his windpipe, black stars bursting behind his retinas, too slowly passed out: "There are some particularly ill-advised ways to kick out, aren't there? One of which is being choked to death. Suffocating. You never forget it, or so I'm told."
Then the door swung open.
The rival extractor looked up, surprised. Eames charged him, bowled him off of Nick; the man scuttled away. Like a crab or a spider, impossible to grab. He was out of the vault with Eames after him. At the door to the purser's office, Eames, his fingertips brushing the man's sleeve, nearly had him—
An explosion rocked the ship. Klaxons whooped as the lights went out. Eames stumbled as the near bulkhead slammed into him; the extractor got away. In a flare-pocket of red-and-yellow emergency light ten meters away, the man paused, turned back with a leer, and ran off into the darkness.
A rumbling from the left. Eames looked. "Oh, hell—"
A wall of water was heading their way.
"Susan," he shouted, "we're going!"
That was all Fischer heard. He was out the door after the formerly shaggy man— bloody hell, it was him, wasn't it?— into wind and sleet and snow. The man broke left, fleeing. He was tall, with a tall man's long legs, but Fischer was light and fast, hellishly fast, even with icy treachery underfoot. They crossed Great Russell Street through pockets of streetlight; they ran through darkness past Bloomsbury Square; at High Holborn, the man ignored the traffic signals and sprinted on, Fischer less than ten meters away, through the glare of headlamps and a blaring of horns. He ran on into Holborn Station, and there, behind him, on the wet tiles Fischer slipped and landed hard on his left knee.
By the time he was back on his feet, no more than three seconds later, to the stares of people entering and exiting the station, the man was through the turnstiles and onto the downward escalator.
A station cop, capped, stolid, fortyish, the reflector bars on his black vest catching the station's sterile light, was already looking Fischer's way. If Fischer tried to jump the turnstile, he'd be caught. He turned toward a ticket kiosk, fumbling his wallet out of his jeans pocket, pushed a twenty-pound note through the indent below the Plexiglas window. "One, please."
He took the ticket pushed to him in turn; he turned away; to the booth-operator's "Your change—", he called over his shoulder: "Give it to OxFam—!"
Through the stiles Fischer went, slotting his single ticket; he caught it on the other side and ran for the escalators heading down.
In the purser's office, Nick, beaten, nearly asphyxiated, was in bad shape. Eames pulled one of the man's arms over his shoulder, hauling him, with Susan's help, to his feet; they and she broke into a run across the first-deck atrium, heading for the curving grand staircase leading up to the casino. A new crop of projections, unmindful of the oncoming flood, turned on them, rushed them. Susan, producing for herself a pair of machine pistols from a hiding-place about which Eames would been more than happy to speculate in less-deadly times, mowed them a path.
"What happens if we drown in here?" he asked, panting, as they bolted up the stairs.
"Not sure," Susan replied, panting in turn. "Not sure I want to find out, either."
One deck up. Two.
And then, in the galleria, another dozen armed projections stood between them and the exit to the promenade deck.
Susan pulled up short, just ahead of a hail of bullets, and ducked with Eames and Nick behind a support pillar. She glanced over the railing to their right. The water had reached the casino. Slot machines shorted out in showers of sparks.
"Will we kick out if we jump?" Nick asked faintly.
"I don't know, Nick," Susan said. "I doubt it. How much longer on the timer, do you think?"
Eames took one of the machine pistols for himself, traded fire with the projections. "Afraid we can't rely on that, Susan."
For a moment, Susan froze. Then she asked, in realization and quiet horror: "Where's Robert, Eames?" In the fight, in the tumult both in and outside of the office, she'd forgotten— "They knew my bloody name—"
"Fischer's out." Eames flinched away as a bullet bit a marble chip from the column near his head. "I think it's time we were, too."
Susan looked at him, met his eyes, nodded. He looked back at her, then slammed Nick headfirst into their sheltering pillar. "Sorry, darling," he murmured. He eased Nick's body to the walkway behind them, turned. Susan was already leveling the muzzle of her machine pistol at his forehead.
Eames grinned at her. "You're going to enjoy this, aren't you—"
Another explosion rocked the ship. The walkway collapsed beneath them. Susan, falling toward the black roiling water, was separated from Eames and Nick. She hit, the gun flying out of her hand; she submerged briefly, then surfaced— and there was Fischer, broken and soaked, bobbing toward her.
They were being swirled under the ceiling of the casino; there, they would drown. She couldn't help it; she screamed: "Robert—!"
She took in a mouthful, a lungful, of water. She panicked. Flailed as the dark water broke over her head. Coughed, choked—
And woke up.
Chris was beside her. On AGRESIV's far side, Nick was sitting up, slowly shaking his head. Eames wasn't there. Nor was Fischer.
Though she was no longer drowning, the feeling remained. Hoarsely, weakly, Susan repeated for the beams of the attic ceiling the last question she'd asked in the dream: "Where's Robert?"
"Hunting," Chris replied, sounding grim but satisfied as he looked down at her. "We were found out, Sue. They broke in. Three of them. We have one downstairs; one got away. Fischer's running down number three."
Fischer slipped like an eel through the press on the escalator heading down to the Central Line. Still, his progress was slow, and slowing: the crush of people ahead of him on the downbound stairs was becoming impenetrable. Opposite, though, on the innermost of the upbound escalators, was a long swath of open space. Just do it, as Chris would say. Fischer flung himself onto and across the center divider, caught his ribs on one of the surf-blocks, kicked off another, then an emergency-stop lamp after that, more falling than sliding on the steep metal surface: eight meters down or better, he twisted off the divider and landed on his feet on the upbound stairs. Breathless with adrenaline, bruised, exhilarated, he sprinted downward, twisted his way, swift as a snake, through a loose throng of surprised escalator-riders heading up; he reached the bottom and propelled himself after the formerly shaggy man. In an access tunnel leading to the eastbound platform, he finally caught up. The man turned on him, swinging a sudden, savage right; Fischer ducked and swung back, all one smooth, fast motion; his left fist caught the man right on the point of the chin. The man stumbled, stunned, into the side of the tunnel.
And then, just as a transit cop paused, looking their way, in the tunnel's station-side opening, Laemmle was there. "Oops," she giggled. "Found you, you bad boys." She looked at Fischer, her eyes deadly serious above her smile, and took one of the man's arms before he could slump to the tunnel floor. Fischer, with a only a matching stupid grin for a disguise, took the other.
"Where are the others?" he asked quietly, panting.
"Susan's still groggy. She's okay; Nick is with her. Chris has one of our friends trussed up back at the house; the other one got away. Eames is—" They left the tunnel; as they passed by the policeman, Laemmle leaned across their captive, nearly tangling all their feet, and planted a playful kiss on Fischer's lips.
"What are you do—" he began.
"Happy holidays, love!" Laemmle smiled drunkenly for the transit cop, then added, under her breath, as they reached the escalators: "According to Chris, you are paying me very good money to keep you safe, Mr. Fischer. Eames is outside with the car."
They escorted the formerly shaggy man back to the surface, where, at the turnstiles, Laemmle produced two tickets, one for her passage and for his. As she reached into her pocket for them, she passed Fischer, briefly and surreptitiously, a small, wicked, blue-and-black-handled knife. Outside, just short of the news vendors on Kingsway, Eames was waiting in a nondescript gray Ford sedan. Laemmle opened the back door, smoothly hooked her left fist into their captive's jaw, got in, and pulled him after her as his knees buckled. Fischer heaved the man the rest of the way into the car, got in after him. As far as he could tell, the fellow was out.
Only when they had pulled out into traffic did he feel his heart racing. But it was an elated racing. He caught Eames's eye in the rearview mirror. "Why are you driving, Eames?"
"Not my bag, darling. Foot-chases in the Tube: too cliched for my discriminating tastes."
"What he's really saying," said Laemmle, "is that he's afraid. Correct?"
Eames met her eyes in the mirror. Bugger off, he mouthed.
"Longtime PASIV users: they can't stand it." With her arm locked through the arm of the formerly shaggy man, the tip of her knife-blade resting about level with his spleen, Laemmle looked to Fischer. "Not the crowding so much. Not the darkness, or so I'm told. The sounds. The ones you don't exactly hear. I'm right, aren't I, Eames?"
Eames didn't reply. Fischer found himself smiling.
As they sat at a light, Eames again met his eyes in the mirror. "Enjoying this, aren't you?"
A sourness in his expression. A bit of grumble in his tone. Just enough.
"Yes," said Fischer, keeping a strong, savage grip on their captive. "Yes, I am."
The first man Chris and Laemmle had caught, the burly man all in black, refused to say anything. Not a name, nothing. "Saving all your deep, dark secrets for the police, boyo?" Laemmle said, to a flat stare and sustained silence, as the man sat, blood dribbling from his Chris-beaten nostrils, in the infrequently used sitting room behind the cage-office, tied to one of the dining-area chairs.
They had more luck with his captured compatriot, the formerly shaggy man, who, having come to, said, before Chris had a chance to hit him with the introductory interrogatories— "Who are you? Who sent you?"—
"My name is Brenner. Doug Brenner. I work for—" He stopped. He gazed insouciantly up at Chris, then turned to Susan and said: "Awareness can corrupt at any level, Miss Gaumont."
She stared at him. "What?"
As he'd been unconscious when Fischer and Laemmle and Eames had brought him back to the house, as they'd searched him thoroughly for weapons before he awoke, and as he was outnumbered six to one, they hadn't bothered to tie him up. Now, he reached inside his jacket; Chris, armed with Fischer's thirty-eight, stepped forward threateningly.
Brenner obligingly put his hand back in plain sight. "Cell phone. Breast pocket," he said.
Eames held the phone up for him to see. "One step ahead of you, sweetheart."
"Number three on speed dial," Brenner said to him. He added, with a droll and toothy smile: "Please."
Eames dialed, handed Brenner the phone. With the receiver to his ear, Brenner waited through the space of possibly four rings.
"It's done," he said, then, to whoever picked up on the other end. He listened, then offered the phone to Susan. "He wants to talk to you."
They discreetly concealed the dream-tech machines, both PASIV and AGRESIV, when the police came to clear away their housebreakers. Eames, in the meantime, discreetly concealed himself as well, up in the second-floor double he'd claimed as a bedroom. While the police were in the house, the workroom's monitors displayed images and data entirely appropriate to Nick's architectural use of AUTO-CAD, to Chris's second life as a network-security specialist, to the one or several people in the house who were fans of vintage Warner Brothers cartoons.
When the police, and Brenner and the nameless man, had gone, still high on adrenaline, they straightened up. All except for Susan, who, to a chorus of good-natured catcalls, begged off by reason of AGRESIV-based exhaustion to catch a nap.
A nap only (and there the gentle jeering died away): she had a meeting scheduled for very early the next morning.
Fischer walked her up to her room and left her to drift off to the essays of Michel de Montaigne, while he bore away, like a blessing, the lingering warmth of a tender, long, wordless embrace.
She had an hour's peaceable sleep, and then, just before midnight, when the rain and snow had left the evening, at least temporarily, in the wind's sole care, Susan Gaumont left the house on Montague Street to meet with Doug Brenner's employer. Likely the employer of the extraction team they'd faced in the second dream, too. Tall and still moderately trim in a long black coat, more aged than aging but unstooped, his curly hair a lion's gold fading to gray, he was waiting for her on Waterloo Bridge.
With blue eyes weary but affectionate, he watched her approach. "Hello, Susan," he said.
"Miles," she replied, not frowning, not smiling.
"How are you?"
"I've been better. You should know that. You never seem to change," she added, reaching, and stopping at, roughly twice an arm's-length distance from him. A polite revelation as she stood there feeling keenly betrayed. She felt numb as well. "Does that mean that this isn't real? That we're dreaming now?"
"No." His expression, like his tone, was honest and wry, but sad, too. He knew he'd hurt her; he could read it in her expression, in her body language; she could tell. "It merely means I'm at an age where change is no longer worth the effort."
She turned to watch the midnight-black Thames flow toward Westminster. "You didn't return my calls."
"I wanted to give you time to learn the technology, to discover its possibilities." He joined her at the railing, stood nearly shoulder-to-shoulder with her. "To decide what to do with it. And, also, to experience the risks inherent in its use."
Susan held her ground, didn't move away. "To see if we deserved it. To see whether we would do the right thing with it."
"Or to leave us feeling betrayed and lost."
"You don't look very lost to me, Susan."
"You hired Brenner. Probably those bloody extractors, too. You staged the attack on the house—"
"Training, Susan. For all of you."
"Don't you have any idea what you did?" She turned on him, anger banking itself in her like a fire against the raw wind. "To the team? To Rob— to Fischer—?"
"We all have someone to pull us back from the edge."
His expression didn't change. But the pause that followed was long, empty, heartrending. "She did. I just didn't reach her in time."
And, just like that, like a match-flame dropped onto the river's dark smooth back, her anger flickered and was gone. "Miles, I'm sorry."
"It's alright. Shh."
Susan paused. "What about Cobb? Why did you save him?"
"When you get older, when the end is in sight, you save what you can. Revenge isn't important. Mal loved him; that's enough for me." He continued, the shoulders of their coats now united companionably against the wind: "You make a life for yourself, Susan, professionally— personally, if you like— with Mr. Fischer. Keep each other safe."
"You picked him very carefully, didn't you?" Susan said, softly, without accusation.
A trace of a smile. "Perhaps."
"What about you?"
"I have my family, my grandchildren. My teaching. I'll keep busy. The company, of course, is yours. Though you might want to alter the name slightly. Gaumont British might have something to say about it."
"Take care, Susan." He leaned down, kissed her cheek.
She didn't watch him walk away.
Fischer, who had been waiting for her on the north end of the bridge, walked out to meet her. He and Miles nodded to one another, politely, in passing. Susan, when he reached her, was looking westward. She didn't turn as he approached.
"Are you okay?" Fischer asked.
"No. Not really—" She caught herself. "That's it, isn't it? The word, all its permutations: none of this is real. That's the problem. What we feel, me for you, you for me: it's all a dream."
Fischer corrected her: "It started in a dream. Every moment we're together, no matter where: that's real." He turned her to face him, traced her cheek with his fingertips. "This is real."
Susan looked at him sadly. "Is it?"
"Yes." He tipped his forehead to hers. "It's worth a bit of thought anyway, isn't it? A moment or two of belief?"
She relaxed into their contact, reached to return his caress. "It is."
"I'll be heading back to Sydney soon," he said. "To propose a new division in R&D. Dream-tech, its attendant security. And the potential of conducting research in other fields using PASIV. I'll need someone I can trust to head things up."
Susan smiled slowly. "Are you offering me a job, Mr. Fischer?"
"Yes. Potentially longterm. And there's the possibility of a second position, too. One involving a lifetime contract. If you're interested."
He was asking her, in so many words, to marry him. Susan laid her hand against his jaw, looked into his eyes, kissed him tenderly. "I'll need a bit of time to think it over."
"All the time you want." Fischer drew her away from the railing. "Let's go home."
He took her hand; together, they walked off.